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To understand Plato’s argument of justice being ‘intrinsically desirable’, one must first realise that each individual has a unique understanding of what justice actually is. In our modern society, often people are simply living for themselves, therefore justice is often misunderstood as content within oneself and rest of society is not a consideration. With similarity to our modern world, Plato’s society dealt with this issue. Through looking at what justice is in Plato’s philosophical text, Republic, we will also be able to discern the ways in which justice is ‘intrinsically desirable’.

In Republic, Plato speaks of a conversation between 5, Cephelus, Polemarchus, Tharsymarchus, Gaulcon and Socrates, each with a different thesis of how justice can be defined. Cephelus’s idea is that justice is simply defined by following laws and repaying your debts (quote). Cephelus, like each other theorist, is disproved by Socrates, who states that paying back debts is not always the right thing to do. (evidence) (why?) Although disproved, it is reductive to state that Cephelus’s answer is not correct, although a definition is factual, it is also based on opinion, how one views justice might be in complete contradiction with how another does. Through Cephelus’s simply put argument, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that justice is desirable. Paying one’s debts is not desirable in itself, however the gratification of losing debts is desired by almost every individual. After this, another theory is put forward by Polemarchus who says that he would define justice by aiding comrades and harming enemies. Again, Socrates says this cannot be the case, as due to human error an unjust decision could be made, as in a person’s perception of who the enemy is could be incorrect, and therefor harm someone who was a potential friend. This argument again could show justice as ‘intrinsically desirable’, through the concept of helping out a friend and harming an enemy is ingrained in human nature. The gratification of helping a friend is undeniable, similarly the outcome of causing a disliked person harm brings about the same … feeling. The next person to put forward their theory was Thrasymachus. The argument he suggests is not so simple, being that ‘might is right’. Meaning that no matter how you see justice, the strongest party is always correct and just. The definition depends on the situation, where the strongest person gets to choose how justice is defined. This idea, unlike the other two, contradicts the basis of the question and shows justice to some extent as undesirable. If the only the strongest get to decide what is and isn’t just, then often justice will not only be undesirable to the many who aren’t the strongest, but also, as Socrates states, the strongest people themselves could misjudge what is beneficial. The final argument is put forward by Glaucon who, instead of defining justice, give an alternative reason for justice that shows it to be extrinsically rather than intrinsically desirable. His argument is that the reason one is just, is due to fear of punishment. (conclusion)

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Justice being a desirable in both society and the individual is explored through Socrates’ idea that the psyche or soul is tripartite, each part contributing to decisions that are made within oneself. These parts of the soul have to be in the correct place in order for a decision to be just and fair. (quote) The three parts of the soul are said to be as follows: the rational part allows one to decide based on wisdom and logic; the appetitive part which insights decisions based on the pursuit of pleasure and fulfilment; and finally, the spirit that essentially backs up the rationality. The spirit allows for more emphasis upon rational thinking, so simultaneously leads to a defence against any disorder. The tripartite psyche is a point made by Plato that directly points one to the conclusion that justice is ‘intrinsically desirable’ as harmony between the three parts of the psyche lead not only to justice, but as Socrates states, a harmonious psyche is a healthy psyche, and a by-product of this is a just and good life. A person who’s psyche works, ordered as a whole, to make just decisions tends to live a just life, so much so, ‘the regular performance by someone of just actions can be taken as sufficient warrant for the assumption of a just and orderly soul.’1 (Read and comment on Plato ethics)


Plato explores further the idea of justice through the challenge set by Glaucon and Adeimantus. They ask of Socrates to prove that justice is intrinsically good (to be intrinsically good would mean by default to be desirable) rather than simply being instrumentally good (according to Glaucon’s three forms of good). To answer this he states, ‘So long as I do not know what the just is, I shall hardly know whether it is a virtue or not and whether the one who has it is unhappy or happy.’2 To meet this challenge, and therefore define justice, we see Socrates good city3, an idealised polis that consists of different types of people, most notably guardians, auxiliaries and other citizens. Guardians being both strong and intelligent soldiers that go through extensive training, auxiliaries being less gifted soldiers, and the citizens being merchants, farmers and others. Socrates city was made to be ideal, ‘in founding the city we are not looking to the exceptional happiness of any one group among us but, as far as possible, that of the city as a whole.’. The idea behind this being that the city could mirror the individual. Through this analogy, it was determined that the wise and strong should lead the city, just as the wise or rational part of the soul should rule over the other two parts; rationality over emotion. Furthermore, the auxiliaries were seen as the … of the city, as the … is the … part of the soul. And thirdly the citizens who … Socrates foundation of the previously mentioned tripartite soul were based on this. Through this idea, one can draw the conclusion that, if in this ideal city, there had to be order for it to be an idealised and functioning polis, then the same can be said for foundation of justice in the individual. This therefore shows justice to be intrinsically desirable through the idea that an ordered soul is not only a just soul, but also a healthy one. By default, an individual would desire to be just and healthy. (opinion)


It could be said of justice, however, that is more extrinsically desirable that intrinsically desirable. That is that justice is something that comes from outside one’s psyche. This can be shown in Glaucon’s suggestion that there are items that have value of their ‘own sake’, and items that have value in their consequences. The idea that we chose to take action based on whether or not it would have a desirable outcome shows desire as more of an extrinsic factor. Socrates follows this comment saying that justice is the item that is ‘the one that anyone who is going to be blessed with happiness must love both because of itself and because of its consequences.’ This gives evidence towards justice not fitting into either category, rather it lies somewhere in between intrinsic and extrinsic. The idea of such an argument is that instead of justice being able to slot perfectly into one simple definition, it is a complex and personal concept. Each being has a new idea of what is justified, and a different reason for acting justly. To put this idea into a modern-day example, one could look at different people’s opinions of terrorism. If a group of people were to witness an attack, the majority would want justice, but each individual would want justice for a different reason and in a different way. One might suggest the execution of the attacker, where another might suggest a lifetime imprisonment, one might desire justice due to a love one being harmed, another might require justice for their own mental and physical trauma. As much as justice varies, be it intrinsic or extrinsic, it is all under the umbrella of justice.


To say that justice in simply an intrinsic desire is a reductive view of the argument put forward in Plato’s Republic. Justice as a concept has been shown to be more than one thing, rather an amalgamation of what each person perceives it as. To state that its within human nature to require justice is overly wide scoped, and although multiple arguments through the text point towards its desirability, it cannot be stated with complete undeniability that we all desire justice.

1 Socrates and the Immoralists – Johnson, C.N. (Pg. 82) Lexington Books 2005

2 Where in the book?

3  Brown, Eric, “Plato’s Ethics and Politics in The Republic”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

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